Tuesday 15 October 2013

The American radical optimist, and what he implies for us

We don’t have anyone quite like Gar Alperovitz in the UK. He is both a Washington insider, a thinking journalist and a political academic.

He is compelling and inspirational. I have watched him hold an audience in the palm of his hand, speaking without notes for over an hour, in a small rural town hall on a snowy night in Massachusetts.

But he is another rare thing: he is a radical optimist in the great gridlock that is American politics, now apparently shut down for all eternity.

His new book What Then Must We Do? sets out how a new economy – mutual, local and innovative – will underpin a new future for the USA, which will be every bit as revolutionary as the original Declaration of Independence.

For the USA, you could also read UK – the same prescription applies here. For Alperovitz, it is an approach that has the potential to break through the logjam consensus around economic solutions that patently no longer work.

This is New Economy Week in the USA, run by the New Economy Coalition, to which I have been distantly involved in giving life, and Gar is a board member.  The week's slogan is: ‘A Just And Sustainable Economy Is Emerging. Let's Make It Visible.’

This is how he puts it:

"I don’t think we here are talking about projects alone, I don’t think we are talking only about entrepreneurship, I don’t think we are talking only about impact investing.  I think we are talking — and I sometimes wear a historian’s hat — I think we are talking about laying down the foundations. … We are establishing the pre-history in this work, step by step, of the possible great transformation."

This is interesting.  Back in 1999, my colleagues at the New Economics Foundation described the similar shift that was happening here, but achingly slowly, as the 'new economy'.  It conflicted somewhat with the similar way of describing the dot.com boom going on at the same time, and it was earlier in the process.

But Alperovitz goes further.  He sees this potentially game-changing sector emerging, not despite the logjam in politics and the economic downturn, but because of it.

Simply because the normal channels for achieving change have seized up, then this combination of mutuals, local banks, social enterprises and local government 'social value' procurement, is beginning to flicker into life.  The only thing that can stop it is if conventional politics and economics recovers, and that seems unlikely.  It is a win-win situation.

He describes the birth of this movement in an article for The Nation as the disastrous moment in 1977 when Youngstown Sheet and Tube closed down in Ohio, putting 5,000 steel-workers out of work.  A plan by a steelworker called Gerald Dickey came within a hairsbreadth of re-opening the plant under the ownership of the previous employees, but the Carter administration unravelled before it could work.

Yet the debate and publicity around the idea was so widespread that Ohio is now a kind of Ground Zero for mutual enterprise, providing a democratisation of the economy, and also - as it happens - a broadening of the tax base in the rust belt.

I think he is onto something, and it is the same here.  The emergence of a mutuals and social enterprise sector has to be local, so it is held back by the absence of local banks in the UK, but the ice is cracking and - as long as the economy fails to deliver for most of us - it will continue to develop.  

It is a potentially life-giving kind of economic development, and - if it goes far enough - it will change everything, driving out conventional Right and Left.

More on why we need a new kind of enterprise in my book Broke.

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